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How Sexism Ruins Relationships

"Hostile sexist" views were also associated with aggression in a recent study.

Have a nice day Photo/Shutterstock
Source: Have a nice day Photo/Shutterstock

Hostile sexism, the antagonistic belief that women are inferior to men, isn’t the only form sexism can take — but it is a damaging one. Past research has suggested that men who endorse these kinds of sexist views are more likely to accept violence against women or interfere with women’s career advancement.

Still, many men who hold hostile sexist views form romantic relationships with women — relationships that, by their nature, entail varying levels of power between parties. Though psychologists have long studied how the balance of power relates to relationship satisfaction, little research has examined how sexist men perceive their own power in a relationship — or how they act toward their partners as a result of those perceptions.

A new paper, published last month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, attempts to better understand the interconnections between hostile sexism, power, and aggression in relationships. Four studies found that men in heterosexual relationships who more strongly endorsed hostile sexism — including ideas like “women seek special favors under the guise of equality,” or “women fail to appreciate all men do for them” — tended to view themselves as having lower levels of power in their relationships. Their partners did not often share their viewpoint.

These perceptions of lower power predicted more aggressive behavior towards a partner — which included derogatory comments, threats, and instances characterized by harsh, negative affect, such as yelling at a partner during a conflict. These moments of psychological aggression were seen in video-recorded interactions observed by the researchers and in both partners’ reports of aggressive behavior that had occurred over the preceding year.

“The link between men’s hostile sexism and aggression is well established, and it’s always been assumed that it’s about power,” says Emily Cross, a doctoral candidate at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and the lead author of the study. “What prior theory and research has not specified, however, is what exactly it is about power that accounts for this relationship.” Past theories have focused on sexist men’s general desire for power over women, regardless of how much power they already have in day-to-day life; Cross and her co-authors hypothesized instead that men’s feelings of powerlessness in their personal lives may be more to blame.

After measuring both men’s desire for power and their perceptions of power in their relationships, they found that the associations between hostile sexism and aggressive behavior were specific to perceptions of low relationship power and were not strongly associated with a desire for more power. “Men who hold sexist attitudes appear to be enacting aggression in an attempt to restore a [perceived] lack of power,” she notes. In future studies, she says, “We plan to test whether aggression has a ‘power-restoring’ effect” — that is, whether aggressive behavior actually increases either men’s feelings of power or their partners’ perceptions of it.

Women whose partners endorsed hostile sexism did not tend to share their partners’ views on how the relationship power was split; Cross adds: “Men who held more hostile beliefs perceived they had lower power, but their female partner did not agree with those perceptions.” She says that while it’s difficult for researchers to determine which partner actually holds the lion’s share of the power in any relationship, the stark discrepancy seen across their studies indicated to them that sexist men who felt they lacked power were likely biased.

“By contrast, there was no discrepancy between partners’ reports of power when men did not agree with hostile beliefs,” she says; that is, men who did not endorse any sexist views (or who endorsed “benevolent sexism,” the belief that women need to be protected and nurtured by men) made assessments of their power that, on average, matched those of their partner. The researchers also attempted to control for a range of possibly confounding factors, like women’s perceptions of their own power or their aggressive behavior, and found that the link between hostile sexism and perceptions of unequal power held strong. Regardless, Cross adds, future research would likely need to incorporate objective third-party reports in order to determine which (if any) partner truly held the throne.

Social psychologist Susan Fiske, who along with psychologist Peter Glick first proposed the dichotomy between hostile and benevolent sexism (a concept known as ambivalent sexism), says that the study’s findings make sense, because men who endorse hostile sexism tend to hold a “zero-sum view” of relationship power. “If male hostile sexists think their partners are competing — by having a serious job or career — then they feel that they have lost power,” says Fiske, who was not involved in the current study. “The [aggression] is a way to reassert control by the only remaining means: being bigger and stronger.”

The new findings also resonate with past research indicating, more generally, that “men who feel powerless and threatened are more likely to endorse hateful and aggressive thoughts — not only in their intimate relationships, but also in society,” says Jason Whiting, a professor of marriage and family therapy at Brigham Young University. “Racism and white supremacy movements, for example, are often based on perceptions that power is being taken away.”

Whiting, who studies domestic violence, also says that “this sense of fear and insecurity [noted in the current study] is a factor in gendered intimate violence as well. Men [justify] their abuse or control based on their need to ‘keep their women in line.’”

Cross acknowledges that, in some ways, her study’s outcome may seem counter-intuitive. “The finding that men who hold hostile sexist beliefs feel that they lack power in their relationships goes against common assumptions that sexist men feel powerful and exert dominance,” she says. “But these findings are exactly what we expected — and make sense considering the realities of power within intimate relationships.” Since neither party can (or should) hold all the power, she adds, each partner’s power is necessarily constrained by the other’s. This study suggests that men who endorse hostile sexism “will be more sensitive and vigilant toward threats to power and in turn underestimate the actual power they have.”

Though the study didn’t establish that men’s feelings of powerlessness, which correlated with aggression, necessarily caused it — “there are a number of ethical and methodological difficulties” that would arise when attempting to do so, Cross notes — it adds to a growing body of research outlining possible dangers of hostile sexism. “Men’s hostile beliefs toward women are an established risk factor for relationship aggression,” Cross says. “Addressing these biased perceptions, and helping men and women share power in relationships, is important in helping to reduce it.”

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